Gilbert Public Schools Tried to Fire Teacher Who Reported Bullying, Racial Discrimination

Sarah's Story: 

The Governing Board of Gilbert Public Schools voted to take action to dismiss a National Board Certified Teacher who reported bullying, racial discrimination and retaliation at Meridian Elementary School last year and continuing retaliation at Highland Park Elementary School. Sarah had been on paid administrative leave with full benefits since November 2011 -- but without an opportunity to defend against the twenty charges against her.

Sarah had a perfect employment record with the Gilbert School District from 2005 through 2011. She received nothing but accolades until she first opposed, then reported racial discrimination during the 2009-2010 school year. That discrimination involved a series of incidents directed against a black teacher from Africa who spoke English with an accent from her native country. Racial discrimination also was implicated in Sarah's verbal reports of classroom bullying to Vicki Hester, principal of Meridian Elementary School, in which a white student targeted minority classmates; Sarah was told to set up rewards for the class when the bully made it home without retaliation from victims.

During the 2010-2011 school year, Sarah reported incidents of bullying in her classroom starting on February 7, 2011. The white child who was bullying recruited minority accomplices and then targeted several different students. Sarah included with her report a note confiscated from the bullying trio.

The child's mother, Kelly *****, wrote in an email to Sarah on February 18, 2011 that she had been told Vicki Hester would not be available to meet with parents "until the first of March." Sarah communicated her concerns in email messages to the principal and the school social worker as the bully continued to target different students in the following weeks. Students were afraid of the bully in the hall, on the playground, in the cafeteria. One student's parent wrote that her child stayed home from school for fear of the bully. On March 3, 2011, Vicki Hester agreed to remove the bully from Sarah's classroom.

Following a meeting the next day with Ted and Kelly *****, parents of the bully, principal Vicki Hester charged Sarah with "unprofessional conduct," but she never told Sarah what she did that was unprofessional. On March 7, 2011, Sarah met with principal Vicki Hester, Associate Superintendent for Human Resources Nikki Blanchard, and Diane Drazinski, President of the Gilbert Education Association. They focused on only one victim who appeared to have been selected for a homophobic motive. Nikki Blanchard started an investigation against Sarah, demanded copies of her correspondence and files, and issued a gag order.

It was not until March 22, 2011 that Sarah realized the reason for the disproportionate charge of unprofessional conduct: it was Sarah's opposition to racial discrimination and bullying dating from the previous school year. Vicki Hester had wanted Sarah to write an application for the A+ Schools Award; after the site visit by the evaluation team concluded, Vicki Hester retaliated against Sarah with a career-ending charge. .

Sarah heard nothing more until April 8, 2011, when Nikki Blanchard issued a Letter of Direction telling Sarah not to "label students GLBT."  Sarah responded to that letter. Public records later revealed the hypocrisy of Nikki Blanchard directing Sarah not to label a student: on March 9, 2011, in a telephone conversation with attorney Denise Lowell-Britt, the "independent investigator" appointed by the district, it was the Associate Superintendent who had labeled Sarah, according to a hand-written note about their conversation: "Teacher almost like Asbergers -- OCD."

More harassment followed, intended to dissuade Sarah from signing a new teaching contract with Gilbert Public Schools for the 2011-2012 school year. Sarah's access to the district email system was disrupted; emails went missing as Sarah watched on the computer screen. The district had been selling children's books that Sarah wrote in schools since 2007 -- suddenly that was violating district policy. Sarah's comments on the homophobic hostility of the meeting in Nikki Blanchard's office and thereafter also was deemed a violation of district policy. Sarah applied for an open position at Gilbert Classical Academy, but discovered her credentials were insufficient for the job. Nikki Blanchard wanted Sarah to transfer anyway, but Sarah said she preferred to remain at Meridian. Sarah knew that no one would protect her vulnerable students if she left. Sarah reported this harassment and retaliation, not knowing that Denise Lowell-Britt was directing it or that she provoked Ted and Kelly ***** into filing a complaint against Sarah.

Two investigations continued through the end of the school year. Emails showed Superintendent Dave Allison, Associate Superintendent Nikki Blanchard, Assistant Superintendent Shane McCord and General Counsel Clyde Dangerfield were "in the loop" contemporaneously with attorney Denise Lowell-Britt, as were principals Vicki Hester and Jason Martin. Those officials insisted to Sarah that everything was completely above-board. Documents later would prove that was never true. No one in the administration ever helped the students who were victims of bullying in Sarah's classroom.

Over the summer, Nikki Blanchard directed that Sarah's personal property be seized and then she involuntarily transferred Sarah out of Meridian Elementary School. Sarah protested this involuntary transfer, to no avail. On August 5, 2011, the first day of the new contract period, Assistant Superintendent Clyde Dangerfield and principal Jason Martin threatened Sarah's job if she did not have her classroom ready in three days for "Meet the Teacher Night." It took 138 man-hours to set up the Highland Park Elementary School classroom, instead of the half a day Sarah would have needed to set up the classroom she left at Meridian Elementary School. Losses and damages totaled $543.26, almost half of Sarah's first paycheck of the year.

It was on August 5, 2011 that Sarah learned the results of the investigations from the previous school year. Sarah had been investigated three times for an amorphous charge of unprofessional conduct that resulted in three different conclusions as to what she might have done that might have been unprofessional, not according to state law or district policy, but according to Merriam-Webster. No disciplinary action was taken against Sarah. After Clyde Dangerfield said that the district would not do anything about her reports of racial discrimination, bullying or anything else, Sarah scheduled an appointment on September 29, 2011 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Unbeknownst to Sarah, principal Jason Martin set out to use the district's "Progressive Documentation" procedures to fire Sarah or force her to resign by the end of the 2011-2012 school year. On October 3, 2011, Jason Martin met with Sarah to go over his "concerns" about her professional performance at Highland Park Elementary. He went over several pages of single spaced typewritten notes, covering a series of transgressions alleged to have occurred since the beginning of the school year. Sarah reported this as harassment, as she had been instructed by Clyde Dangerfield and Shane McCord. A few days later, Sarah reviewed Denise Lowell-Britt's investigation file in Clyde Dangerfield's office, where she learned the extent of the collusion and corruption she had endured from top level superintendents and administrators in Gilbert Public Schools.

Sarah had not yet grown cynical -- she believed that if the Governing Board was aware of what had happened, the board would protect her students and correct supervisory problems. Sarah served a Notice of Claim on November 9, 2011, fully expecting remedial actions would be forthcoming. Sarah wrote:

My career as a teacher is over. It shocks the conscience that the reason is that I followed the law, and I sought a safe learning environment for my students. No one has tried to make a legitimate accusation against me for anything else.

On November 22, 2011, Sarah was escorted out of her classroom by Clyde Dangerfield and Jason Martin. She was told to go to district offices on November 28, 2011 to "further discuss" her employment status.  At that meeting, she was handed a resignation package. The crux of Superintendent Dave Allison's deal was "dismiss your EEOC charge or be fired." Sarah refused to resign because she has done nothing wrong. Sarah chose a public hearing on the charges.

As threatened, Superintendent Allison recommended in a public meeting that the board adopt charges against Sarah. Gilbert Public Schools was so determined to publicly humiliate Sarah that Assistant Superintendent Clyde Dangerfield, Esq. emailed copies of the Statement of Charges and Intent to Dismiss to a parent of a student before giving a copy to Sarah or her attorneys. A few days later, the President of the Gilbert Education Association betrayed Sarah by approaching a board member, saying Sarah is a "great teacher, just not suitable for the Gilbert environment...I know she is one of our members and it seems strange that I would talk about one of our own this way..."

Meridian principal Vicki Hester said in a staff meeting that the charges against Sarah were all from Highland Park -- and Highland Park principal Jason Martin told parents that the charges against Sarah were all from Meridian. That strategy might have worked if had not been created to shine a spotlight on how the Gilbert Public Schools Governing Board, Superintendents and administrators treat employees who oppose their illegal conduct cloaked in officiousness.

A substitute teacher took over Sarah's classroom on November 22, 2011. Parents protested the manner in which Gilbert Public Schools has handled this matter. Parents sent letters to the board and addressed the board during an open meeting. Board members were told not to correspond with parents who oppose dismissing this teacher. The administration has not addressed parent complaints, either. Students are doing crafts and seatwork rather than learning the innovative lessons they enjoyed before this highly effective teacher was removed from her classroom. Now parents bring students to study with Sarah two days a week for her "Mastermind Learning Club."

Nevertheless, it appears Sarah's public hearing was a mere formality before official dismissal. Highland Park Principal Jason Martin wrote to parents on December 7, 2011 after the Gilbert Public Schools Governing Board voted to proceed with Sarah's dismissal. Renee Kelly emailed parents of Sarah's students to thank them for being "patient with me during this transition."

Sarah waited for almost six months for Gilbert Public Schools to schedule a hearing on the charges against her. In order to avoid a public hearing, the GPS Governing Board unanimously withdrew all charges against Sarah and signed a settlement agreement in which Sarah retains all of her legal charges against the district.

Update: Board Unanimously Withdrew All Charges!

Update: Former Gilbert Public Schools Board Member Apologizes for the District's Retaliation Against Sarah

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Gilbert Public Schools, Arizona Anti-Bullying Law, racial discrimination, elementary school bullying, classroom bully, GPS, Superintendent Dave Allison, Assistant Superintendent Clyde Dangerfield, Associate Superintendent for Human Resources Nikki Blanchard, Assistant Superintendent Shane McCord, Spectrum Elementary School principal Debbie Singleton, Highland Park Elementary School principal Jason Martin, Meridian Elementary School principal Vicki Hester, GPS, Gilbert Education Association, GEA President Diane Drazinski, Arizona Education Association, AEA, attorney Denise Lowell-Britt, Udall, Shumway & Lyons, Mesa, attorney Matthew W. Wright, Holm Wright Hyde & Hays, Phoenix, attorney Donald Peder Johnsen, Gallagher & Kennedy, Phoenix, Civil rights, violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 703, national origin discrimination, retaliation for engaging in protected activities, retaliation for association with protected persons, illegal retaliation, hostile work environment, harassment, dismissal of certificated teacher, Arizona Revised Statutes, ARS 15-539, Arizona Civil Rights Act, Arizona Attorney General, Arizona Civil Rights Division, United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, General Prohibition Against Unlawful Discrimination and Harassment, fire teacher, National Board Certified Teacher, dismiss teacher for reporting bullying and racial discrimination, defamation, destroying a teacher's reputation, Gilbert Unified School District, GUSD, due process,  Ted and Kelly *****, Heather Adams, Jeffrey Filloon, Shawn McIntosh, Progressive Documentation, How to Fire a Teacher, How to Fire Classified Employees, Certified Employees, FERPA violations, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act violations